In a move that combines marketing ingenuity and literary inventiveness, Picador is trying to breathe new life into Specimen Days. After Michael Cunningham's ambitious and highly anticipated novel—which drew on the writing and iconography of Walt Whitman in much the way his megahit, The Hours, did on Virginia Woolf—was greeted with disappointing sales (not to mention a mixed critical reception), Picador is trying to generate excitement about the paperback edition by pairing it with an unusual add-on: a new collection of excerpts from Whitman's nine-volume magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, introduced and selected by Cunningham.
The new Whitman book, titled Laws of Creation, may sound like a publicity stunt, but Picador and Cunningham have deftly turned it into something else—a slyly intelligent companion piece that endeavors to bring Specimen Days back to life . Writing about misunderstood art and underappreciated artists in the introduction to Laws, Cunningham notes: "An original effort, even if it flops, is always better, at least for some of us, than the prospect of presenting the world with a minor variation on something it has plenty of already." Though directed at Whitman and his epic (itself misunderstood and oft underappreciated in its time, not to mention subject to endless revision) the statement could also be about Cunningham and his own recent commercial stumble.
While Picador denied this was an attempt to turn around a flop, it refused to release stats on Specimen's performance. Cunningham's editor, Frances Coady, said the intention was always to re-launch the book in paperback and there had long been talks of the author doing "a Whitman selection."
Both books will drop May 1 with matching cover art. Though Laws will be sold as a separate paperback with French flaps (retailing for a dollar less than Specimenat $13), the books will be showcased side-by-side in 10-copy displays and promoted together in ads as well. While Specimen Days will get a 200,000-copy first printing, Laws will go to press for 50,000. According to Picador publicist, Tanya Farrell, outreach to bookstores will "encourage them to both order and display the two books together."
In Coady's eyes the effort, if nothing else, is something she hopes will "introduce Whitman to an entirely new audience."